Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Some groups of Jews organized to fight the Nazis.

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The Jewish Masses

Another problem was the manner in which the ghetto fighters were regarded by the civilian Jewish population. In general, fighters use arms when continued existence through negotiation has failed. The struggle by the ghetto fighters could not end with victory over the enemy or with the achievement of security, succor, or even a postponement of their fate.

The battle of the ghetto was a desperate cry to future generations, and was not regarded as a realistic struggle to ensure the future survival of the fighters. Mordecai Anielewicz, the commander of the Warsaw ghetto revolt, expressed the significance of this battle:

"The dream of my life has risen to become fact. Self-defense in the ghetto will have been a reality. Jewish armed resistance and revenge are facts."

A battle of this sort, which does not alleviate present misery or offer any hope for the future, is an extremely rare phenomenon in history, and by its very nature cannot involve the masses. Most people grasped at the slightest excuse for not gelling involved in this futile struggle, hoping thereby to save themselves and their loved ones. In many ghettos, the fighters were without broad support and were, therefore, isolated from the masses.

Despite the many difficulties, revolts did break out in several ghettos. In Bialystok, Vilna, Czestochowa, Sosnowiec, and elsewhere, the fighters resisted or attacked. The one revolt that attained the dimensions of a mass, stubborn, and protracted rebellion took place in the Warsaw ghetto. This lasted from April 19 to May 16, 1943.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

The Jews of Warsaw were able to organize a resistance which cost the Nazis prestige, materials, and casualties. Moreover, Warsaw was the first rebellion in any occupied city in Europe. It tied down sizable forces of the enemy for a longer period of time than did many sovereign countries overrun by the Germans in World War II.

The Warsaw ghetto revolt was unique for two other reasons. In Warsaw, the tens of thousands of Jews who had remained behind after the two great deportations of the summer of 1942 and January 1943 supported the idea of resistance and rebellion. Ghetto residents did not heed the calls of the Germans, did not report for selections (for deportation to the concentration camps), and hid in bunkers underneath the ground.

These underground hiding places and bunkers were built over months: their locations and entrances were well concealed. Food and medical supplies were stored in there for prolonged hiding. Many bunkers also had arms. In actuality, most of the Warsaw ghetto in its last stages was an underground city that accommodated tens of thousands of Jews.

When the Nazi soldiers came in to carry out the final deportation on April 19, 1943, they found a deserted city, with the way barred by hundreds of armed fighters. The two fighting organizations--ZOB and ZZW--numbered about 750 fighters in various positions, with a plan of action worked out to the finest detail.

The rest of the civilian population had taken refuge in the bunkers and assisted the fighters in whatever way possible. Thus, all of the central ghetto of Warsaw became a partisan battle zone. The Nazis needed days of street fighting to capture each bunker individually, with the inhabitants of each bunker refusing to leave and sometimes answering calls to come out and surrender with gunfire.

Secondly, the resisters in the Warsaw ghetto did not prepare a path of retreat or plan any action other than fighting in the ghetto. The Poles tried to persuade the fighters to desert the ghetto a short while before the revolt and to hide in the forests. The answer of the fighters was unequivocal: "This is where the battle will take place."

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Yisrael Guttman

Yisrael Guttman, previously Yad Vashem's Chief Historian and Head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research, is Yad Vashem's Academic Advisor. He was a member of the Jewish Underground in the Warsaw ghetto, and he survived Auschwitz.